Does Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent Life Exist? And What Would We Do If They Come Here?

According to the Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities by EU applies three basic principles in pursuance of its overall objective: freedom of access to space for peaceful purposes; preservation of the security and integrity of space objects in orbit; and due consideration for the legitimate defense interests of states. 

by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize[our] common bond.  I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world… Ronald Reagan

As a species, we humans have achieved tremendous development over the years but also destroyed ourselves with catastrophic consequences every now and then. The present is no exception. 

Using abductive logic, one might argue that in this vast Universe which has a trillion galaxies which in turn have billions of celestial bodies in each, we cannot be alone in this world.  That is perhaps why we have the ongoing robust Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) which continues to arouse our curiosity.  Both scientists and astronomers have relentlessly pursued this phenomenon, searching for exoplanets that could be having characteristics that are Earth-like enough to be worth pointing telescopes at. What they are looking for are “biosignatures” – features in a planet’s atmosphere that can be generated only from life.

Astronomers are enlisting new technologies in the quest to answer one of the most intriguing research questions of all: Are we alone in the universe? ZHENGZAISHURU/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES/ SCIENCE NEWS

Breakthrough Listen – a program launched in 2022 by SETI is the latest and in 2023 SETI received a large grant and the University of Oxford was selected as the new international headquarters for the world’s largest SETI project.

Do Aliens Really Exist?

The United States Department of Defense in June 2021 became responsible for what is popularly called The Pentagon Report  named after a report of the Department confirming the sight of military pilots, after analyzing the photographs of UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) that those UAPs were perfectly real but the Department had no idea what these were.

Extra-terrestrial life not only dwells in the world of science and astronomy but also in our imagination and  the world of fiction. In the novel Deception Point by Dan Brown, NASA discovers a meteorite in the Milne Ice Shelf containing fossils of insect-like creatures, seemingly proving the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this high probability comes from a renowned world authority Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird Professor of Science at Harvard University who in his book Interstellar: The Search For Extra-terrestrial intelligence and our Future in the Stars  says: “whatever we discover through the science of extraterrestrial artifacts – say, that life and civilizations are common throughout the Universe or life and civilizations are extremely rare – we will nevertheless confront a species – and civilization – altering question: What is humanity’s place among life in the Universe?…Everything humanity has learned about life as we know it, and everything humanity has learned about the Universe’s extent, laws, properties and matter as we know it, tells us we are not alone”.

Another source – The Drake Equation (N = R∗x fp x ne x fe x fi x fc x L) – propounded by Astro Physicist Frank Drake in 1961 corroborates this.  Author Tamlin Magee in the November2022 issue of FUTURE says says: ”  … according to the Drake equation, there’s a decent chance, statistically speaking, that intelligent extraterrestrials are out there somewhere – even if the stars would have to align for us to find and contact each other, given the vastness of our galaxy and enormous distance between planets”.

Joh Zarrnecki – Emeritus Professor of Space Sciences at The Open University in the UK says. “Finding life or making contact is always going to be highly unlikely until the day we do [it]”.

There are others who share their views on the subject. For example: The former astronaut Edgar Mitchell is reported to have claimed that aliens exist and their visits are being covered up by the United States government. Former Defense Minister of Canada Paul Hellyer claimed he believed that there have been four alien species visiting Earth for thousands of years. Space X and Tesla Chief Elon Musk  is reported to have said that he believes there is a high probability that we are living in a simulation created by a more advanced civilization.

Stephen Hawking – who did not believe that aliens have visited us in the past – said :”If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet”.

Collusion with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

The next question is what would our reaction be if aliens from outer space were to visit us.  Would we stop all international and regional wars that are needlessly causing us death and suffering? Would we come together to “engage” with them or protect our collective selves against an alien attack to take us over?

On the other hand, if the aliens who visit us are friendly and want to help us,  would the devious among us – in States, Nations or individuals step in to reap some benefit out of the situation, typically to the disadvantage of the majority of us? Would those among us – particularly States – collude with these aliens to get ahead in the arms race, both terrestrially and extra-terrestrially?

There are no specifically developed laws to cover a State’s liability in this instance, although  there are some generalities which can be analogically used in extension to develop specific laws and treaties. For example if arms coming from outer space (which are extra terrestrial properties and resources) are used  The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 may help in a general manner which says that outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. This means that no country can claim ownership of any celestial body, including the Moon and other planets. The treaty also provides that States must bear national responsibility for space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities, and that states must be liable for damage caused by their space objects. Additionally the treaty provides that the exploration and use of outer space must be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and is  the province of all mankind. This suggests that any resources found in outer space should be used for the benefit of all countries and not just one country.

There are three Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly which may relate to this issue:  Resolution 1962 (XVIII) was adopted in 1963 and declared that outer space should be used for peaceful purposes and that the exploration of outer space should be carried out for the benefit of all countries and should be the province of all mankind; Resolution 2222 (XXI) was adopted in 1966 and established the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) to review the scope of international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space, to devise programs in this field to be undertaken under United Nations auspices, to encourage continued research and the dissemination of information on outer space matters, and to study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space;  Resolution 51/122 was adopted in 1996 which reaffirmed the importance of the principles and objectives of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space.

In addition Resolution 49/34  of 1994 covers international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space and links the importance of international cooperation to the development of the rule of law, including the norms of space law particularly in the use of outer space resources for peaceful uses of outer space. The operative words here are “international cooperation”.


It is a truism that no individual country or group of countries can regulate outer space, which is governed by a patchwork of international treaties, resolutions of the United Nations and industry standards.  However, international relations and domestic policy drive a nation’s direction towards outer space exploration and reflect individual State interests. The United States, which incontrovertibly is the leader among all spacefaring nations (which include  Brazil, Russia, India and China, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Israel the European Space Agency, Ukraine and Iran), is responsible for 75 percent of space funding worldwide and owns or operates 40 percent of all active spacecraft in orbit.

Garold Larson, Alternate Representative to the First Committee of the 64th Session of the United Nations Assembly held on 19 October 2009, succinctly outlined the policy of the United States on space exploration.  The foremost principle outlined by Larson was that the United States will continue to uphold the principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the United States recognized as providing fundamental guidelines required for the free access to and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes.  He went on to say that the United States will continue to take an active role in identifying and implementing cooperative efforts with established and emerging members of the international spacefaring community to ensure the safety of the space assets of all nations and also expand cooperation with other like-minded spacefaring nations and with the private sector to identify and protect against intentional and unintentional threats to its space capabilities.

The European Union, in 2008, published a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, which it later revised in September 2010. The fundamental postulate of this code is that member states should establish policies and procedures to minimize the possibility of accidents or any form of harmful interference with other States’ right to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space. The Code applies three basic principles in pursuance of its overall objective:  freedom of access to space for peaceful purposes; preservation of the security and integrity of space objects in orbit; and due consideration for the legitimate defense interests of states.

Although aliens from outer space and engagement with them still remain a subject of ambivalent conjecture, with the space race intensifying, States are becoming more and more aware of the need to pay attention to the need for a liability regime that might emerge in due course. For example, a measure included in Bill C-19A of Canada provides that a Canadian crew member who, during a space flight, commits an act or omission outside Canada that if committed in Canada would constitute an indictable offence is deemed to have committed that act or omission in Canada.

Perhaps President Reagan was right.  Aliens might be our last resort. 

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.